I live in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, which was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and in some parts, by Hurricane Rita. Preparing for hurricanes is part of life in south Louisiana, and we all know the drill very well. In 1998, we even stayed through the threat of Georges, once weather forecaster and hurricane genius Nash Roberts said it was going to hit near Biloxi (it did). Other than having our power out for three days, we did fine.
Katrina was different, and we knew it. Increasing rapidly in intensity, moving very slowly, and having formed around an unusually large eye (thirty-two miles), this storm had the potential to be another Camille, the most brutal storm most of us can remember. It turned out to be much worse than Camille, of course.
We were lucky. Our front gutter ripped off, a tree crashed into our roof, and trees fell all over the yard. That may not sound like good luck, but so many others came back to piles of rubble where their homes once stood, or to houses that might have to be bulldozed. The scene in New Orleans is eerie, with entire neighborhoods dark and quiet except for the sound of chainsaws and heavy machinery.
My husband, our two cats, and I evacuated to Bunkie, a small town in central Louisiana. To avoid heavy traffic, we took the long way around, through little Mississippi towns and corn and cotton fields. We arrived at the beautiful old Bailey Hotel at six in the evening on Sunday, August 28. Not many hours after that, Katrina demolished the lovely Gulf Coast town of Waveland, Mississippi. My friend used to have a house there. The bottom half was blown away; the top half landed in someone else's yard. He found his grandmother's depression glass strewn over the lawn. The dinner plates were gone, but the other pieces remained unbroken.
Stories like this abound, though few of them are so picturesque. By now, everyone has heard of the dying patients at Charity Hospital waiting to be rescued, the drowned nursing home patients, and the beloved pets left to fend for themselves or literally tossed into the street because the government would not allow them to be rescued. These images will never go away, no matter what we do to suppress them. For several nights after New Orleans was flooded by the rupture in the Seventeenth Street Canal levee, I dreamed about people drowning.
At the Bailey Hotel, I blogged constantly and answered e-mails from people around the world who checked on us, or offered us housing in case we needed it. A diehard tennis fan, I watched the U.S. Open day and night. We had a comfortable bed, a television, a computer, hot water, air conditioning, and an ice chest. The cats had a blanket, plenty of food, and a courtyard view. The hotel staff was kind. When I watched the news, I felt like we were the most fortunate people imaginable.
I cannot find all of my New Orleans friends. One is in Lafayette, one is in Austin, another is in Houston, and one was living in Tupelo until recently. I have no idea where some of the others are. Our power came back quickly; our telephones still don’t work well. A few days ago, our cable service resumed, though not yet at the previous level of quality.
My hair has lost its body and is standing on end, either from the water or from stress I cannot find all of my clients. I was turned down for Disaster Unemployment Insurance, but in order to find out why, I had to wait for hours to see a job counselor. Either the power company or the cable company demolished our mailbox. It’s difficult to get out of my neighborhood because of the trucks and heavy machinery. The traffic in my community is now out of control, and it can take an hour to make what used to be a ten-minute trip. My yard has large bald patches where trees once stood.
None of these inconveniences amounts to anything compared with losing loved ones, living in a shelter, or not knowing the whereabouts of your family members and pets. It amounts to nothing compared with losing your job, or your business, or your livelihood. Survivor’s guilt forces us to minimize the stresses of everyday living, but it takes its toll on us nonetheless.
What we are experiencing, however, is more than the stress of inconvenience; it is the knowledge that the entire New Orleans community has been crippled by death, destruction, toxicity, and fear. One of my friends, who is trying to rebuild her once-successful business, says she cries all the time now. Many people have not returned to the city, many will spend months in trailers in remote locations. The children cannot go to school; many of their parents have no jobs. What used to be known as America's Most Interesting City is now the scene of America's greatest tragedy.
Deeply flawed by poverty, crime, and corruption, New Orleans has always compensated somewhat by vibrating with culture and an unconscious elegance. The city's food, music, and folk art are known worldwide, but you can absorb the essence that gave birth to everything from the Mardi Gras Indians to the shabby glory of Magazine Street only by living there. Nowhere else in the world will you find the Roman Candy man driving his horse-drawn cart, or the pie man walking from office to office, selling his wares. Nowhere else will you see the startling saint statues and neon lights of the Saturn Bar, or the clanging streetcar whirring by gigantic ancient oaks.
Much of it is gone now, perhaps never to be seen again. As of this writing, I am exactly a week away from my first trip to the city since the devastation, where I know I may cry or gasp in shock. But I will not turn my eyes away.
BIO: DIANE E. DEES, a psychotherapist and writer in Covington, Louisiana, is a regular contributor to Moondance. Her short stories, creative nonfiction, poetry and political commentary have appeared in many publications. Diane and her husband, Orvin Tobiason, are the webmasters of princesscafe.com, the world’s only virtual rock and roll restaurant. You can read her blog at dedspace.blogspot.com.
Contact Diane at: firstname.lastname@example.org